Shifting perspectives: How has our understanding of anxiety and depression evolved?

In the wake of the COVID pandemic, mental well-being has taken a central stage in the collective awareness of the public.

It’s a logical line of thought to assume that increasing public consciousness will only enhance understanding of mental health, lessen social stigma, and motivate individuals to pursue suitable assistance. 

The elevated prominence of mental well-being should also invigorate endeavors to enhance and upgrade the healthcare system to treat mental health.

Normalisation vs concept creep

An interesting research project conducted by the University of Melbourne explored the idea that perhaps anxiety and depression may be undergoing concept creep’.

For instance, the research has demonstrated that with the recent surge in the popularity of the term ‘trauma’, its scope has expanded to encompass less intense encounters. While it initially denoted life-threatening situations, it has now come to encompass a wider range of adversities in everyday conversation.

Could a similar phenomenon of conceptual expansion transpire for ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression’ – two of the most prevalent types of distress linked to mental health issues?

How did they analyse it?

To assess whether ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression’ have undergone similar semantic shifts or weakening, the research used innovative and interesting natural language processing techniques. They delved into the definition of these words dating as far back as fifty years! This extensive dataset ( also called “corpora”), helped anticipate a possible trend of decreased emotional intensity.

The research used two main datasets. The first comprised abstracts from more than 800,000 psychology articles released between 1970 and 2018. The second comprised over half a billion words sourced from a wide array of everyday media, such as TV shows, literature, newspapers, and spoken language, covering the same time span.



Contrary to their initial expectation of a diminishing emotional intensity, they discovered the complete opposite. In both datasets, the words surrounding ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression’ exhibited a consistent increase in emotional intensity over time. This suggests that these words are now perceived as more distressing than they were in the preceding decades.


A shifting perspective

The study found two very interesting trends. 

Initially, ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression’ weren’t used together in sentences very often. ‘Depression’ did not rank among the top ten associated words with ‘anxiety’ in the overall dataset during the 1970s and 1980s. However, as we reached the 2000s and 2010s, ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’ were pretty much always mentioned together. 

Secondly, in the last five decades, there has been a noticeable trend where these two concepts are more frequently used alongside terms associated with illness, such as ‘disorder’ and ‘symptom’. This observation indicates a growing recognition that both ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’ are progressively being viewed as clinical occurrences.

In short, ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’ seem to have become a pathological couple.


What are the implications?

To quote the University of Melbourne’s research “Although anxiety and depression can both be transient and functional everyday mood states, they are increasingly cast as disorders. They have been pathologised rather than normalised.”

People are using these terms to refer to less severe phenomena than they once did and are simultaneously adopting a clinical understanding of them when they do.

So the concepts of anxiety and depression may have broadened, intensified, and pathologised simultaneously.

The cultural implications of this trend may be concerning. But the exact impact hasn’t been studied or measured yet. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing clinically significant anxiety or depression, it’s essential to seek help from professionals. But it’s also important not to self-diagnose inappropriately. 

Opinions or facts expressed within the content have been sourced from various news sources. While every effort has been taken to source them accurately, the pharmacy, its owners, staff or other affiliates do not take any responsibility for errors in these sources. Patients should not rely on the facts or opinions in the content to manage their own health, and should seek the advice of an appropriate medical professional. Further, the opinions or facts in the content do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the pharmacy, its owners, staff or other affiliates. 

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